Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay (1800–1859)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by John Bach McMaster (1852–1932)
THOMAS BABINGTON MACAULAY, the most widely read of English essayists and historians, was born near London on the 25th of October, 1800. His early education was received at private schools; but in 1818 he went into residence at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduated with honor, and was elected a fellow in 1824. Out of deference to the wishes of his father he thought for a while of becoming an attorney, read law, and was called to the bar in 1826. But the labors of the profession were little to his liking; no business of consequence came to him, and he was soon deep in literature and politics, for the pursuit of which his tastes, his habits, and his parts pre-eminently fitted him.  1
  His nephew and biographer has gathered a mass of anecdotes and reminiscences, which go far to show that while still a lad Macaulay displayed in a high degree many of the mental characteristics which later in life made him famous. The eagerness with which he devoured books of every sort; the marvelous memory which enabled him to recall for years whole pages and poems, read but once; the quickness of perception by the aid of which he could at a glance extract the contents of a printed page; his love of novels and poetry; his volubility, his positiveness of assertion, and the astonishing amount of information he could pour out on matters of even trivial importance,—were as characteristic of the boy as of the man.  2
  As might have been expected from one so gifted, Macaulay began to write while a mere child; but his first printed piece was an anonymous letter defending novel-reading and lauding Fielding and Smollett. It was written at the age of sixteen; was addressed to his father, then editor of the Christian Observer, was inserted in utter ignorance of the author, and brought down on the periodical the wrath of a host of subscribers. One declared that he had given the obnoxious number to the flames, and should never again read the magazine. At twenty-three Macaulay began to write for Knight’s Quarterly Magazine, and contributed to it articles some of which—as ‘The Conversation between Mr. Abraham Cowley and Mr. John Milton touching the Great Civil War’; his criticism of Dante and Petrarch; that on Athenian Orators; and the ‘Fragments of a Roman Tale’—are still given a place in his collected writings. In themselves these pieces are of small value; but they served to draw attention to the author just at the time when Jeffrey, the editor of the great Whig Edinburgh Review, was eagerly and anxiously searching for “some clever young man” to write for it. Macaulay was such a clever young man. Overtures were therefore made to him; and in 1825, in the August number of the Review, appeared his essay on John Milton. The effect was immediate. Like Byron, he awoke one morning to find himself famous; was praised and complimented on every hand, and day after day saw his table covered with cards of invitation to dinner from every part of London. And well he might be praised; for no English magazine had ever before published so readable, so eloquent, so entertaining an essay. Its very faults are pleasing. Its merits are of a high order; but the passage which will best bear selection as a specimen of the writing of Macaulay at twenty-five is the description of the Puritan.  3
  Macaulay had now found his true vocation, and entered on it eagerly and with delight. In March 1827 came the essay on Machiavelli; and during 1828 those on John Dryden, on History, and on Hallam’s ‘Constitutional History.’ During 1829 he wrote and published reviews of James Mill’s ‘Essay on Government’ (which involved him in an unseemly wrangle with the Westminster Review, and called forth two more essays on the Utilitarian Theory of Government), Southey’s ‘Colloquies on Society,’ Sadler’s ‘Law of Population,’ and the reviews of Robert Montgomery’s Poems. The reviews of Moore’s ‘Life of Byron’ and of Southey’s edition of the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ appeared during 1830. In that same year Macaulay entered Parliament, and for a time the essays came forth less frequently. A reply to a pamphlet by Mr. Sadler written in reply to Macaulay’s review, the famous article in which Croker’s edition of Boswell’s Johnson was pilloried, and the essay on John Hampden, were all he wrote in 1831. In 1832 came Burleigh and his Times, and Mirabeau; in 1833 The War of the Succession in Spain, and Horace Walpole; in 1834 William Pitt, Earl of Chatham; in 1835 Sir James Mackintosh; in 1837 Lord Bacon, the finest yet produced; in 1838 Sir William Temple; in 1839 Gladstone on Church and State; and in 1840 the greatest of all his essays, those on von Ranke’s ‘History of the Popes’ and on Lord Clive. The Comic Dramatists of the Restoration, Warren Hastings, and a short sketch of Lord Holland, were written in 1841; Frederic the Great in 1842; Madame D’Arblay and Addison in 1843; Barère and The Earl of Chatham in 1844: and with these the long list closes.  4
  Never before in any period of twenty years had the British reading public been instructed and amused by so splendid a series of essays. Taken as a whole the series falls naturally into three classes: the critical, the biographical, and the historical. Each has merits and peculiarities of its own; but all have certain characteristics in common which enable us to treat them in a group.  5
  Whoever will take the pains to read the six-and-thirty essays we have mentioned,—and he will be richly repaid for his pains,—cannot fail to perceive that sympathy with the past is Macaulay’s ruling passion. Concerning the present he knew little and cared less. The range of topics covered by him was enormous; art, science, theology, history, literature, poetry, the drama, philosophy—all were passed in review. Yet he has never once failed to treat his subject historically. We look in vain for the faintest approach to a philosophical or analytical treatment. He reviewed Mill’s essay on Government, and Hallam’s ‘Constitutional History’; but he made no observations on government in the abstract, nor expressed any opinions as to what sort of government is best suited for civilized communities in general. He wrote about Bacon; yet he never attempted to expound the principles or describe the influence of the Baconian philosophy. He wrote about Addison and Johnson, Hastings and Clive, Machiavelli and Horace Walpole and Madame D’Arblay; yet in no case did he analyze the works, or fully examine the characteristics, or set forth exhaustively the ideas, of one of them. They are to him mere pegs on which to hang a splendid historical picture of the times in which these people lived. Thus the essay on Milton is a review of the Cromwellian period; Machiavelli, of Italian morals in the sixteenth century; that on Dryden, of the state of poetry and the drama in the days of Charles the Second; that on Johnson, of the state of English literature in the days of Walpole. In the essays on Clive and Hastings, we find little of the founders of British India beyond the enumeration of their acts. But the Mogul empire, and the rivalries and struggles which overthrew it, are all depicted in gorgeous detail. No other writer has ever given so fine an account of the foreign policy of Charles the Second as Macaulay has done in the essay on Sir William Temple; nor of the Parliamentary history of England for the forty years preceding our Revolution, as is to be found in the essays on Lord Chatham. In each case the image of the man whose name stands at the head of the essay is blurred and indistinct. We are told of the trial of John Hampden; but we do not see the fearless champion of popular liberty as he stood before the judges of King Charles. We are introduced to Frederic the Great, and are given a summary of his characteristics and a glowing narrative of the wars in which he won fame; but the real Frederic, the man contending “against the greatest superiority of power and the utmost spite of fortune,” is lost in the mass of accessories. He describes the outward man admirably: the inner man is never touched.  6
  But however faulty the Essays may be in respect to the treatment accorded to individual men, they display a prodigious knowledge of the facts and events of the periods they cover. His wonderful memory, stored with information gathered from a thousand sources, his astonishing power of arranging facts and bringing them to bear on any subject, whether it called for description or illustration, joined with a clear and vigorous style, enabled him to produce historical scenes with a grouping, a finish, and a splendor to which no other writer can approach. His picture of the Puritan in the essay on Milton, and of Loyola and the Jesuits in the essay on the Popes; his description of the trial of Warren Hastings; of the power and magnificence of Spain under Philip the Second; of the destiny of the Church of Rome; of the character of Charles the Second in the essay on Sir James Mackintosh,—are but a few of many of his bits of word-painting which cannot be surpassed. What is thus true of particular scenes and incidents in the Essays is equally true of many of them in the whole. Long periods of time, great political movements, complicated policies, fluctuations of ministries, are sketched with an accuracy, animation, and clearness not to be met with in any elaborate treatise covering the same period.  7
  While Macaulay was writing two and three essays a year, he won renown in a new field by the publication of ‘The Lays of Ancient Rome.’ They consist of four ballads—‘Horatius’; ‘The Battle of the Lake Regillus’; ‘Virginius’; and ‘The Prophecy of Capys’—which are supposed to have been sung by Roman minstrels, and to belong to a very early period in the history of the city. In them are repeated all the merits and all the defects of the Essays. The men and women are mere enumerations of qualities; the battle pieces are masses of uncombined incidents: but the characteristics of the periods treated have been caught and reproduced with perfect accuracy. The setting of Horatius, which belongs to the earliest days of Rome, is totally different from the setting of the Prophecy of Capys, which belongs to the time when Rome was fast acquiring the mastery over Italy; and in each case the setting is studiously and remarkably exact. In these poems, again, there is the same prodigious learning, the same richness of illustration, which distinguish the essays; and they are adorned with a profusion of metaphor and aptness of epithets which is most admirable.  8
  The ‘Lays’ appeared in 1842, and at once found their way into popular favor. Macaulay’s biographer assures us that in ten years 18,000 copies were sold in Great Britain; 40,000 copies in twenty years; and before 1875 nearly 100,000 had passed into the hands of readers.  9
  Meantime the same popularity attended the ‘Essays.’ Again and again Macaulay had been urged to collect and publish them in book form, and had stoutly refused. But when an enterprising publisher in Philadelphia not only reprinted them but shipped copies to England, Macaulay gave way; and in the early months of 1843 a volume was issued. Like the Lays, the Essays rose at once into popular favor, and in the course of thirty years 120,000 copies were sold in the United Kingdom by one publisher.  10
  But the work on which he was now intent was the ‘History of England from the accession of King James the Second down to a time which is within the memory of men still living.’ The idea of such a narrative had long been in his mind; but it was not till 1841 that he began seriously to write, and not till 1848 that he published the first and second volumes. Again his success was instant. Nothing like it had been known since the days of Waverley. Of ‘Marmion’ 2,000 were sold in the first month; of Macaulay’s History 3,000 copies were sold in ten days. Of the ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel’ 2,250 copies were disposed of in course of the first year; but the publishers sold 13,000 copies of Macaulay in four months. In the United States the success was greater yet.
          “We beg you to accept herewith a copy of our cheap edition of your work,” wrote Harper & Brothers in 1849. “There have been three other editions published by different houses, and another is now in preparation; so there will be six different editions in the market. We have already sold 40,000 copies, and we presume that over 60,000 copies have been disposed of. Probably within three months of this time the sale will amount to 200,000 copies. No work of any kind has ever so completely taken our whole country by storm.”
  Astonishing as was the success, it never flagged; and year after year the London publisher disposed of the work at the rate of seventy sets a week. In November 1855 the third and fourth volumes were issued. Confident of an immense sale, 25,000 copies were printed as a first edition, and were taken by the trade before a copy was bound. In the United States the sale, he was assured by Everett, was greater than that of any book ever printed, save the Bible and a few school-books in universal use. Prior to 1875, his biographer states, 140,000 copies of the History were sold in the United Kingdom. In ten weeks from the day of the issue 26,500 copies were taken, and in March 1856 $100,000 was paid him as a part of the royalty due in December.  12
  Honors of every sort were now showered on him. He was raised to the peerage; he was rich, famous, and great. But the enjoyment of his honors was short-lived; for in December 1859 he was found in his library, seated in his easy-chair, dead. Before him on the table lay a copy of the Cornhill Magazine, open at the first page of Thackeray’s story of ‘Lovel the Widower.’  13
  All that has been said regarding the Essays and the Lays applies with equal force to the ‘History of England.’ No historian who has yet written has shown such familiarity with the facts of English history, no matter what the subject in hand may be: the extinction of villeinage, the Bloody Assizes, the appearance of the newspaper, the origin of the national debt, or the state of England in 1685. Macaulay is absolutely unrivaled in the art of arranging and combining his facts, and of presenting in a clear and vigorous narrative the spirit of the epoch he treats. Nor should we fail to mention that both Essays and History abound in remarks, general observations, and comment always clear, vigorous, and shrewd, and in the main very just.  14

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